Movie review by Greg Carlson
Too trifling to comment with any weight on the racial issues it raises, “Something New” still manages to work as a pleasant, if casually paced, romance with a pair of attractive leading performers. The feature debut of music video director Sanaa Hamri, “Something New” tracks the dating ups and downs of smart, successful Kenya McQueen (Sanaa Lathan), a demanding and particular young professional whose plan to find an IBM (that’s an Ideal Black Male) goes topsy turvy when she falls for Brian (Simon Baker), the white landscape architect who’s designing her backyard garden. Hamri, shooting Kriss Turner’s screenplay, uncorks the predictable complications, but the movie’s success rests with the easygoing chemistry between Lathan and co-star Baker.
Following a double cute-meet: an initial, awkward blind date paired with a chance encounter at a pre-wedding party thrown by a mutual acquaintance, Kenya agrees to hire Brian, who shows up at her door in his beat-up pickup truck with playful golden retriever in tow. Everyone knows that these opposites will most definitely attract, and before much of the soil has been tilled, Kenya and Brian have shared a tender kiss in the rain. Convincing herself (and her family and friends) that Brian is the one doesn’t come as easy as the kiss, however, and soon enough Kenya’s self-doubt steers the couple over some rocky terrain.
To make matters worse, competition arrives in the shape of handsome attorney Mark (Blair Underwood), who outwardly seems to possess the perfect combination of tall-order requirements on Kenya’s list. Viewers will not have to consult a crystal ball to guess the movie’s eventual outcome, but those engaged with Lathan’s adept handling of an often ridiculous set of obstacles might find even the more familiar elements worth watching. Surrounded by a solid cast, including Donald Faison as Kenya’s womanizing brother, Alfre Woodard (doing her best with a mostly strident, underwritten character) as Kenya’s ever-critical mom, and Earl Billings as Kenya’s understanding dad, Lathan navigates the thorny dilemma that finds her stuck in a tough spot.
“Something New” clearly aspires to themes beyond the girl-meets-boy plot that drives the action, but much of the film’s discussion of the politics of interracial dating wind up as speeches instead of believable conversation. The movie’s heart is nearly always in the right place, but some of Kenya and Brian’s outbursts come off as preachy and forced. Especially trying are the “Sex and the City”-cloned roundtables with Kenya and her girlfriends, a series of mostly unfunny filler scenes which never play like natural exchanges.
Not surprisingly, “Something New” is lightest on its feet when Kenya and Brian are alone, working out the delicate maneuvers of new lovers with the additional burden of disapproval from those whose opinions count (Mike Epps, as the boyfriend of one of Kenya’s pals, best embodies the skepticism of Kenya’s circle). Both Lathan, who has been terrific in a handful of films, and Baker, still looking for a really big breakout role, breathe life into their roles that doesn’t exist on the page. “Something New” may not entirely live up to its hopeful title, but the lead actors almost take it there.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/6/06.